An Interview with Dr. William Jelani Cobb by Sten Spinella (2016)

This is the unedited transcript of Dr. Cobb’s interview. The edited version is printed in the Long River Review’s physical copy.

Dr. William Jelani Cobb is a nationally-known intellectual who has written books, essays, and anthologies on everything from the history of hip-hop to the Cold War to racism and to current events, who has been outspoken on TV and radio, and who is a professor at UConn as well as the Head of the Africana Studies department at the university. This lowly Long River Review interviewer managed to extricate an hour of the Howard graduate’s time to hear his thoughts on history’s place in his writing, racism, hip-hop, and a host of other topics that basically amounted to his general philosophy. We met in the conference room of the Africana Studies Department across from Cobb’s office. Posters adorned the walls – I remember one of the Apollo Theater – and a long, regal wooden table sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by chairs. Cobb strode in with blue jeans and an imposing frame after briefly talking to his assistant, whereupon his boxer-glove-hands, the large size of which he has occasionally referenced in his writing, enveloped mine. He wore a dark green business jacket, under which was a green, V-neck sweater. While I was, admittedly, intimidated, it was not because of his appearance, or his bass-heavy voice. Rather, it was his mind, that practically sprung from his bald head and salt and pepper beard, that was daunting. A mind that during our conversation, like in his writing, could jump from the current state of hip-hop to American affronts to black people to his personal life, writing, and influences, then to the history of Islam. A mind that introduced extemporaneous metaphors, idioms, and historical allusions as easy as if he were preparing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was a memorable hour.

Sten Spinella: I read that you added Jelani to your full name back in college in order to connect with a more African tradition. Would you mind elaborating on that?

William Jelani Cobb: I was named after Saint Anthony, and I no longer was Catholic, so it wasn’t that I had to reject that name, but it didn’t have as much affinity to me anymore. And then when I was like, ‘Oh, I think I want a different middle name, I think I’d like something that was directly from Africa.’ It’s interesting because at that point, it wound up having a long, huge impact, but I was 20, so I didn’t give it that much thought, I just said ‘I’m gonna change my middle name, and I want to have something that connects me to my African ancestry,’ and I picked this name. It’s funny because, when people ask me about it now, I kind of want to say it was some profound, well-thought out thing, but it was just something I did one day.

SS: So do you think it’s been reflected in your writing?

WJC: What I’m interested in has been kind of these questions of diaspora and the relationship of people to each other throughout this diaspora, and the way that race is factored into it. So being a black American, what do you have in common experience with a black Jamaican, or a black Brazillian, or a black person in the UK. How has race differentiated and how has it been consistent in all of those places. And I wouldn’t have articulated it that way, at that point, but it was something that was intriguing to me, and I wanted to understand it. Also I grew up in New York, so in my community there were Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, you know, some Africans, and then a good number of black people who had migrated from the South, you know, black American migrants, and they were all interacting in this community. My sense of the world and what it meant to be African-American was more complicated than maybe if I had grown up in a small Midwestern town where everyone had kind of similar stories.

SS: Yeah, I liked that essay, you said your family kind of tried to recreate a Southern community in Queens.

WJC: Yeah, that’s also a common thing, if you read The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabelle Wilkerson’s book, she talks about that. Like most migrants, or immigrants, they tend to seek each other in the new location, and they tend to replicate, at least some, of the things they left behind there. In my community, as a young person, it was normal to me that like, all the adults had southern accents, even though I grew up in New York, and later on I noticed that this was actually a notable thing. It was because they had all been Southerners, and they kind of kept the same traditions and we ate fish and grits and we went to churches that were heavily Southern-influenced, even though I was raised Catholic we sometimes went to like Baptist revival churches. Those kinds of things that people do, of course that story is replicated lots of times, there’s a Chinatown, there’s a reason that people have come together to create that, or a little Italy, that kind of story. But I don’t think I understood it that way at the time.

SS: I want to address your career, which I find fascinating because, you started writing for One, that little periodical, next was the Washington City Paper and YSB, so I was wondering, how has your writing changed from when you were writing for these kind of small publications compared to your novels and The New Yorker now?

WJC: Not changed.

SS: Not at all?

WJC: It’s just evolved. So here’s like, one of the things, there’s the old I guess sports principle, where when you get to the playoffs, or you get to the World Series, you do the same thing that you’ve been doing. You know? What got you there is the thing that helped you succeed. And so, when I change in different venues, I learn things along the way, but everything that I did at The New Yorker were things I was being taught at One and the City Paper. I found that to be the case throughout, that I learned things in various places in the world and in my life that turned out to be applicable to other kinds of experiences. I always tell young people that the crappiest jobs tend to be the most educational, and certainly the most interesting. You meet generally more interesting people in crappy jobs. Not that those were crappy jobs! I should not say that. Those kind of introductory places where I learned, I met really different people, people who I would not have met otherwise, and I learned things that are useful to me now.

SS: Great. So I kind of want to switch tack a little bit. I definitely want to talk to you about your creative nonfiction writing, a little bit about hip-hop and history’s influence on your writing, but I also want to ask you some questions about race. First thing I was wondering is, when you write about race for something like The New Yorker, do you have an audience in mind? Like a white liberal, black America, a racist, or do you just write, because.

WJC: No. I try not to have any audience in mind, even though I know the audience of The New Yorker is different from One or the City Paper, but you also have to have a faith in the kind of basic intelligence of the people that you’re writing for, that if they agree with you fine and if they don’t agree with you, they at least respect the thought that you’ve put into drawing the conclusion that you’ve drawn. Sometimes you’ll think about the voice of the publication, so there’s a very distinct New Yorker prose, is not the same thing as Esquire prose, which is probably not the same thing as Vanity Fair prose, you may think about that a little bit, but for me, I don’t think about the audience. Most of the people I know, most of the writers I know, tend to put the audience out of their heads. Because, one of the things is, it can turn you into a trained seal, where you’re doing things for applause.

SS: Does it maybe corrupt your writing?

WJC: Right. The trained seal does a trick and you give it a treat and people applaud. You don’t want to be that person. You want to be a person who’s independent, who’s kind of speaking their mind and saying the way they understand the world, and that has to fall on the side of if people love it, great, if they hate it, too bad, and if they think about it – the goal is not for people to love it or hate it, but to really think about it.

SS: I mean, that’s something I’ve found interesting about your career. You’ve always been an independent writer, whether it’s a novel or you’re just writing for different publications. I guess I should ask a question about that, because the dream is to be a freelance writer, right, when you start out? So how were you able to maintain that?

WJC: Because I did other things. I start out, going all the way backward, when I was undergrad, I was a double major in history and English. I didn’t know which of those things I wanted to pursue, if I wanted to be an historian or if I wanted to be a writer. Then I decided that at some point those two things didn’t have to compete with each other, that I could do both of those things, and while I pursued the academic track, I wound up writing on the side, and in the summers and so on, and that was more amenable to doing freelance stuff. Then in graduate school it was very simple because I was poor. Graduate students don’t have any money, so I just wrote on the side so that I could eat. I got in the habit of eating. So that was how that came about. I thought about those two things as very separate, I had two very different lives even though I was writing under one name for both of them.

SS: I definitely want to get back to that later, because I’ve loved the historical allusions throughout your writing. Something that you addressed directly in things that you’ve written, and has kind of been, whenever I read black writers, percolating in their minds, do you feel as a black writer, pressure, or a burden, to write about race?

WJC: Sometimes. Sometimes. I think, I’m interested in other things. I wrote a thing about drones. I’m into drones now. I have a drone in my car, quad copter.

SS: Really?

WJC: Yeah.

SS: You doing research like that?

WJC: No, I just like flying them. That’s an interest of mine, and the politics of the Cold War is an interest of mine.

SS: Your foreign policy writing…

WJC: Yeah, the other stuff, there’s lots of stuff, but there’s an urgency I’ve found with race that hasn’t relented. If you had asked me when I started at The New Yorker if I would have written about Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore, Eric Garner, I think I’ve wrote about all of those things that were happening. I didn’t set out to do that. But at the same time those were things that had to be discussed.

SS: Absolutely.

WJC: I did have a facility in discussing them. I understood the dynamics there, and there were things that I had written about previously, in previous outlets, when you look at the span of the stuff in The Devil and Dave Chappelle. Most of that stuff is about race. Some of it is about family, and those things are maybe inflected about that experience of race, but yeah, there’s sometimes an urgency when you feel like you have to respond to things, even though, probably the next thing that I write, may be about just straight American history, and Donald Trump and where he comes from in American history, and where that relationship is to men with similar outlooks, that have come before.

SS: That urgency you mentioned, this is kind of a selfish question, I’m asking it for myself in a way, but you talk about this intellectual bunco squad of writers. How can – what’s the place of the ally in anti-racist literature, when it comes to that squad, policing everything that goes on, the urgent matters that need to be discussed.

WJC: You know, I’ve never been really a big fan of the “ally” language because, it seems constraining to me. Like, they’re people of conscience. What you call yourself doesn’t really matter to me. The people of conscience and the people who are invested in trying to have a world where people are treated with equality, dignity, respect and so on. I think that sometimes with the language of “allies” it becomes more about appearances, or agreement, or being 100 percent in line with a particular argument, and I don’t think that that gets anyone anywhere, so there are things that I may disagree with on a particular issue, but I’m still fundamentally sympathetic to the cause of human beings being treated with humanity. I tend to shy away from it. But what kind of things do you write? What kind of things are you interested in writing?

SS: Me, personally?

WJC: Mhm.

SS: I mean, this year, there’s kind of a joke inside the Daily Campus office that I’m the race correspondent.

WJC: (Laughs)

SS: But that’s just because there’s a million things to write about when it comes to that.

WJC: There’s no shortage of it, right. It’s like ‘They keep pulling me back in,’ that line from Die Hard three, ‘Just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in.’

SS: I wanted to ask you about that. Is it frustrating for you, because, when I was reading The Devil and Dave Chappelle, I saw these essays about police brutality in New York in the 90s and stuff like that, then also a lot of Katrina essays about how black people were failed by the government. So does it just frustrate you now to see these things still happening, and Flint, Michigan for example, and the Eric Garners of the world, how do you keep addressing the same topic?

WJC: So that’s what becomes difficult. You brought up the adjectives, like you’re saying, ‘What can I say about this new situation, which is not a new situation?’ that becomes frustrating, yes, definitely. At the same time, when I look at the burden that other people had to deal with – it’s not even comparable. And those people, you did see change, between the point at which they lived, if we’re talking about the middle of the 20th century or the beginning of the 20th century, the middle of the 19th century, you do see change over time, but it’s because people of conscience who put their shoulder to the wheel of history and said that ‘This is the world that we want to live in.’ For me, being tired of writing about the same sort of problems, is not the same thing as being tired because you’ve been a sharecropper. You know? So I can’t. Or you’ve been someone who worked without the benefit of the eight-hour-day, or the minimum wage, or workplace safety standards or any of those things.

SS: That’s a good point.

WJC: Relatively speaking, I have a wind at my back.

SS: I want to talk about your creative nonfiction writing for a little bit. Do you prefer writing – because I was fascinated by your Rio research piece –

WJC: (Laughs)

SS: I was wondering if you preferred writing long-form research-based essays, or something like a personal essay.

WJC: I don’t like personal essays.

SS: Why’s that?

WJC: It’s easy to be analytical, but the first person essays invariably, even if you’re writing first person narrative about travel, the reader is learning about you. If people are learning about your ideas, or your argument, or how you see the world, that’s one thing, but learning about you, specifically, that’s a different kind of thing, even though I’ve written some of those things. It can be kind of intimidating because you don’t know what the world will do with that kind of information. Especially now, because we live in an era in which social media brings out the best and the worst of us. I wrote about being divorced, and someone will say ‘Oh I read about you being divorced!’ or something like that.

SS: Off-handed comments you don’t really want to address.

WJC: Yeah, you really don’t want to go there. But some people are good with that, some people are much better at that. Almost by genre, poets seem to be way better about that than nonfiction and prose writers.

SS: So you feel more comfortable commentating on events rather than looking inward, I guess?

WJC: In print, yeah.

SS: Not necessarily by yourself.

WJC: No, I mean the memoir is a beautiful form. The first person essay is one of my favorite forms to read. The other thing I think is that as you study writing you notice that each one has its own particular quirks. What is good for a first person writer may not be good for a kind of analytical essay, or may not be good for an op-ed kind of structure, and it’s like carpentry, where you develop different sets of tools. This person might be really good at building staircases and this person is really good at building cabinets, those different skillsets. Sometimes one of the good exercises is to push yourself out of your genre and make yourself do something you wouldn’t normally do just as a writing exercise. Try different things. One of the people who – I edited this collection of Harold Cruse’s writing – Cruse was a phenomenal polemicist. He wrote these polemical essays that were just beautiful. I mean, they were horrible in terms of what he was saying about people, but if he was going to make a lacerating argument, there was nobody who could get close to him. I read his fiction, his unpublished fiction, and you realize it was unpublished for a reason.

SS: (Laughs)

WJC: Unreadable. I read his plays, he wrote drama as well, and ehhh, it was better than fiction, but it wasn’t anything you were rushing to see produced on Broadway.

SS: Now why is that, do you think? Is it because the political message came across as clunkier in fiction? I feel like that’s hard to do.

WJC: It takes a lot of discipline to learn different styles. It’s just like tennis where some people are better on clay and some people are better on a court. Asphalt. Is it asphalt?

SS: I don’t watch tennis.

WJC: Or, the better example, there’s some people in baseball who are better at hitting left-handers. It just winds up being, one, what you have a natural inclination for and two, what you work at to cultivate a grasp of.

SS: You mentioned this a bit, I’m an English/political science, but like I do this journalism thing –

WJC: Grass! Clay and grass. Alright. Don’t know what’s wrong with me this afternoon.

SS: I was wondering, did you ever have a feeling that you had to choose in your writing, I know you had a feeling you had to choose between history and English, but did you ever have to choose between journalistic and creative? Because it seems that you’ve been able to combine the two.

WJC: I never did. One of the things is that, I was influenced by a lot of poets, and I saw that the people who were combining poetry and prose, like taking the elements of a line that you might not know offhand if it was a poetic line or a prose line. More than anything else, I think poetry can teach the prose writers that you should have a sense of rhythm. A sentence should have a kind of bounce, or meter, the way that poetry does. When I’m clicking, when I have it together, I can actually do that. I’ll have a short line then a longer line and I’m kind of playing with those things. That may not happen when I’m on a deadline, I’m just trying to get coherence, but I’ve never seen those two things as being in conflict. I think it’s also unfortunate that we don’t teach journalists that. We teach them to get the facts straight, that’s important, but there also is an artistic part of journalism.

SS: It’s a story.

WJC: Yeah, it’s a story. Crafting it, and the structure that you put a story into, dictates how a story flows.

SS: I’m just gonna move to hip-hop. I loved your whole difference between an emcee and a rapper thing. How similar is that to – you mentioned in the intro to Dave Chappelle – that there are these plastic prophets and genius visionaries. Is that the same thing as a rapper and an emcee.

WJC: Kind of. Although I think that distinction has broken down more. I think there are fewer emcees, and rappers are just generically what we see now, for the most part. I think at one point it was easier to make that clean distinction.

SS: Early 2000s?

WJC: Yeah, but now what would you say a Kanye West is? He’s himself. He’s a lot of things. Drake you could say, ‘Oh, Drake is a rapper,’ but he completely annihilated Meek Mill, which is something an emcee would have done.

SS: But, did he write it?

WJC: Oh you know, that’s neither here nor there.

SS: I thought that emcees were supposed to write original material.

WJC: Right, but I say that’s neither here nor there because you’re never gonna know that.

SS: True.

WJC: Then there are people like Jay-Z, who’s super-commercial, but writes all his rhymes in his head, he doesn’t use pen and paper. I think the distinction’s broken down a little bit, it’s not as clean as I once thought that it was.

SS: You did talk a little about rhythm and meter and how that affects your writing. I wanted to know if you think that modern day hip-hop has the same political clout that the genre used to have. Do you think that it’s still something that can shape culture?

WJC: It shapes culture. It is political in particular ways, it may not be self-consciously political in the same way that, I think that people set out to make political statements, and now they wind up making political statements by default. Hip-hop’s sexism is political. Its misogyny has political implications, it’s just that people don’t think of that as political. You have voices, you have people that critique, but by and large, hip-hop is part of the establishment. It’s an industry, it kind of has standard-bearers, it’s part of advertising. At one point it was kind of hip and novel to see someone who was using hip-hop in advertisement. Now? Ehhh. They had a ‘Hotline Bling’ commercial in the Super Bowl and nobody really noticed. You have rappers – I saw this thing about Drake, that he performed at a bar mitzvah for 250,000 dollars – hip-hop is accepted in these kinds of ways. I think one of the things that its lost along the way is this insurgent idea of being the voice of people who were outside the establishment, or people who were outside the comfortable parameters of American discussion. We’re gonna talk about things that nobody wants to talk about. Not as much anymore.

SS: You compared yourself to Chuck D in the beginning of The Devil and Dave Chappelle. I was wondering if that is who you would still compare yourself to as a writer, if you were to compare yourself to a rapper, or an emcee.

WJC: No, it wouldn’t be, but I don’t think that I would compare myself to a rapper anymore. When I first started writing, Chuck D, you’d listen to how he’d approach a record. The second he got on a record, you knew, even the opening lines, you could just have this list of his opening lines, with ‘Welcome to the Terrordome,’ like ‘I got so much trouble on my mind.’ Boom. He’s gonna go from there. I wanted to jump into an essay in that same way, announce myself, and say like ‘These are my sixteen bars,’ which was good for a particular voice at a particular time. I still have the Chuck D voice in my head.

SS: When you need it.

WJC: When I need it. Sometimes you have the Miles Davis voice, when you need that, or you might say I want the Aretha Franklin voice.

SS: I love that voice.

WJC: Yeah, exactly. You’re going for those voices and you have different things, like if you’re writing about Birmingham and what it meant for my family to leave, I can’t use the Chuck D voice for that, but you can use it for different things. I think it goes back to the toolkit, where the old saying – if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. If you have a hammer and a wrench and a screwdriver, and pliers, and all these other things, then you can actually do more complicated and nuanced things. Every so often I’ll be like ‘I need the ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ voice.’

SS: That’s cool. You mentioned the toolkit, your expertise in history I think adds this element to your writing that I don’t usually see in essays in general. How important a tool is history in getting to the truth of modern day events in your writing?

WJC: Indispensable. It’s indispensable, to me. It’s the only way that I know how to understand the world. It was a revelation for me when I was 18 and I started taking my history classes and things started clicking, like pieces started coming together. There are other things that do that, like some people’s literature will do that, and some people find it through religion, but for me it was history. I was like ‘If I think in this way, the world will make sense to me.’ We tend to be an ahistorical society. One, we’re a young country, but also, if we talk about fifty years ago, it’s like ancient history, where some societies you’ll be talking about things that happened in the last millennium, and you have this long sense of who these people are, what there purpose was, like in the Islamic tradition, very often people will be thinking about standard-bearers in the faith that died five or six hundred years ago, and what their impact was. The West? We don’t really think like that.

SS: Why do you think that is?

WJC: One, because America was designed to get away from history. The people who founded this country were trying to make a break with the past. It also became a place where you were not supposed to be trapped in lineage, where Europe was, with ancestry and barons and title-holders and wars and decries and all these things that had kind of created the state of affairs that made people want to leave in the first place. People like that, we kind of worship the idea of novelty here, and the idea of starting anew. We think of ourselves as exceptional, in that regard. What gets lost in that is the capacity to understand yourself in the long term, to see the tragic repetition of things, to see triumphs that people have wrung out of difficult circumstances previously, I don’t think we think about the past very much here.

SS: Is that clearer in any way than that whole, you wrote about that ‘Just get over it, way of thinking, when it comes to bringing up reparations for example.

WJC: Oh, absolutely. I mean there are a few things at play there. For instance, we have this thing called Black History Month, right, which every February someone writes an op-ed saying we should get rid of it, but it’s also the biggest organized confrontation that we have with American history, period. We don’t engage with World War II in a structured fashion, we don’t engage with labor history in a structured fashion. Maybe the History Channel does a whole lot of stuff on World War II, but only a small sliver of the population watches that channel. So people don’t know that February was originally American History Month. The Daughters of the American Revolution declared that February was going to be American History Month, I think in the 1940s, and it went nowhere. People just started ignoring it after awhile. In 1976, this group said that we’re going to make Black History Month in February, and it took off. It became this tremendous thing. To the extent that anywhere on the calendar year, Americans actually grapple with any element of our history in a concentrated, concerted fashion, it’s usually February. Part of the ‘Get over it’ idea, when people say that, it’s that we don’t really know what you’re asking people to get over, we don’t understand that. We’re not even just talking about slavery. We’re talking about the kind of things that are a generation back, like my parents were in Jim Crow and everything that came with being in Jim Crow. So it wasn’t simply that we’re denying you social access to white people, it’s more like we’re denying you tangible, material resources and education and employment.

SS: A slice.

WJC: Right. A slice. We’re denying you a part of this equation, this pie. And to say ‘Just get over it,’ is almost like saying, ‘Okay, I’ve pushed a boulder down a hill and then walked away from it, and because I’ve walked away from it, that boulder is no longer rolling down the hill.’ We’ve just kind of broken with the past. Yeah, that becomes frustrating in lots of ways, and if I wanted to extrapolate beyond that, I’d say yesterday there was a shelter, an immigrant shelter in Germany, that was set on fire. We’ve seen this upsurge of nativist resentment in France, and we’ve seen extremely Anti-Muslim rhetoric in this presidential election. At the same time, we’re looking around and saying ‘Does this not remind us of the way the early 20th century, people associated Jews with Communism, with Bolshevism.’ Internationally people were looking at the Jews and saying ‘They’re all Bolsheviks’ in the same way that people are looking at Muslims and saying ‘They’re all terrorists.’ The ugliest parts of our present have analogues in the past, and we refuse to see that.

SS: I couldn’t agree more. Why are people acting like police just started murdering black people?

WJC: Right. Evidence. I was talking to a police officer over the weekend, a retired police officer about this, and he was like ‘Yeah, these things happened all the time, and I did it too.’ It’s a guy that was a cop in the 70s and 80s, retired in the 90s and he was like ‘Yeah, you know, this sort of thing happened and we – it was just what you did.’ Now of course people have video. He, of course, said he only did it to – like he arrested a child molester once who abused this child horribly and he was like ‘I’m gonna kick this guy’s ass before I put handcuffs on him,’ or another guy that had given heroine to an eleven-year-old, so, I mean people who you would, on the far end of the spectrum of human darkness. At the end of the day, it’s still like, that kind of behavior facilitates lots of other violence. What’s different is the indisputability of video. Richard Pryor had a routine about it in the 70s. He was talking about how black people wind up being brutalized and white people were like ‘Oh, stop resisting arrest.’

SS: Still said.

WJC: Still said. And it’s almost like the common marker of our humanity, like can you see yourself in someone else’s shoes, and can you believe that someone’s behavior, even if it seems to be irrational to you, might have some underlying logic. If you lived in this person’s circumstances, would this action make more sense to you? I think it’s that humility that allows people to really grapple with each other’s humanity. I’ll say this: Stanley Crouch, who is a writer that had a great deal of influence on me, said that the purpose of art was to get us beyond our xenophobic inclinations, that we look at someone and we don’t relate to them whatsoever. When you have a novel, or a film, or a painting, or a poem, or whatever it is, it allows us to grapple with this person’s humanity by proxy. He felt like art was the great civilizing force between us. You could also cite it in religion. In Judaism and Christianity and Islam, there are all these references to how you treat strangers, like you’re supposed to treat strangers with kindness, and you’re supposed to extend yourself, and that’s because deep down we have a dark, nativist, suspicious kind of nature –

SS: That we have to say something like that.

WJC: Right. That we have to push ourselves beyond. If there’s been any one thing that I’ve tried to do in writing, it’s been trying to present a brief for the humanity of people whose humanity has been often overlooked.

Sten Spinella is a junior English & political science major at the University of Connecticut. He is Interviews editor of the Long River Review.

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